Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




The Solution to Homelessness is Housing, Not Policing

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A sleep-in protester with the message (photo: @VOCALNewYork)

Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton were confronted by the growing disorder associated with homeless mentally ill people at a press conference on Wednesday. The mayor responded that the city is both relying on aggressive “quality of life” policing and attempting to develop supportive housing to try to address the roots of the problem. This is a refreshing alternative to the liberal approach of the Dinkins years in which people were told that they needed to tolerate a certain amount of disorder while long term solutions were pursued, many of which were out of reach, we were told, given federal budget cuts.

De Blasio has consistently voiced his support for using the police to maintain order as well as fight crime, sometimes spuriously linking the two under the banner of the “broken windows” theory. He has also called for a significant expansion of both supportive housing for the homeless and affordable housing more broadly. But is his approach really going to work any better for either homeless people or local residents? Are cops really the ones who should be so regularly on the front lines of addressing mentally ill people on New York City streets?

In the early 1990s New York City faced a significant crisis of public order related to the growth of mass homelessness and the breakdown of the State’s mental health system. Neighborhoods throughout the city were confronted by homeless encampments, wide spread panhandling, squeegee men, and at times the menacing and even violent behavior of mentally ill people living on the streets and subways. The system of policing, emergency shelters, and mental health care seemed powerless to deal with people like Larry Hogue who for years threatened, annoyed, and at times assaulted residents along West 96 Street. Despite repeated arrests and hospitalizations, he would always return to the neighborhood and continue his anti-social behaviors. The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars processing him through police precincts, courts, jails, and emergency rooms, with no positive outcomes for either him or local residents. Hogue was eventually subjected to a year’s imprisonment on assault charges followed by a long-term psychiatric commitment at Creedmoor State Hospital.

The sense of a city out of control during this period contributed to the political rise of Rudolph Giuliani and a police-centered approach to dealing with the homeless mentally ill. For some time that approach significantly reduced the public impact of mass homelessness, but only by undermining homeless people’s civil rights and personal dignity, and substantially increasing the rolls of the mentally ill in city jails and state prisons. However, no real progress has been made on improving our mental health infrastructure or reducing homelessness. In fact, homelessness has been on the rise almost every year since the early ‘90s with nearly 60,000 people currently in the shelter system and thousands more sleeping out of doors each night.

The New York Post recently chronicled the rise of a new homeless denizen of the Upper West side who, like Hogue, suffers from severe mental illness and has been unresponsive to repeated arrest and emergency hospitalization. While the Post’s breathless coverage has the feel of moral panic designed to undermine the mayor’s overall credibility, the number of people sleeping on streets, in subways, and even occupying Tompkins Square Park has increased.

The mayor and police commissioner pointed out to reporters that they have invested in significant new training for police in how to deal with the mentally ill. Over the next few years 10,000 officers will undergo four days of specialized training in dealing with a wide variety of potential interactions in hopes of reducing the spate of fatal outcomes, seen nationally, in which police kill people experiencing a mental health crisis. They are also being made aware of the emergency services available for people on the streets and how to use verbal skills to deescalate contentious interactions and coax people into services and more socially acceptable behaviors.

There are several problems with this approach, however. First, there aren’t really any meaningful services to coax people into. People who are homeless and mentally ill are likely to experience repeated and prolonged periods of crisis. The main service available to them is emergency mental health hospitalization, in which people are held for a few hours or a few days, given medication until they appear stable, and then released back onto the streets, often leading to either chronic under-treatment or a very expensive and often ineffective revolving door between jails and hospitals, as recently chronicled in the New York Times.

Second, armed uniformed police really aren’t the best people to assign to this important task. Over the last generation we have seen a dramatic shifting of local resources away from social services and towards police and prisons. Emotionally disturbed person (EDP) calls make up a significant part of patrol officers’ time and up to 30-50 percent of people at Rikers Island have a major diagnosed mental illness—all at tremendous public expense.

The primary function of police is to use force and coercion to enforce the law. As such they develop a mindset that sees the world as full of potential threats and feel a profound need to command authority and obedience in interactions with the public, ironically in an effort to avoid actually having to use force against people. Those experiencing a mental health crisis, however, do not typically respond well to that police demeanor. Attempting to train officers in a new demeanor, while desirable, is unlikely to be very successful given the profound pressures to maintain an authoritative public profile.

In reality, when police are involved they tend to fall back on their core approach which is criminalization and coercion. Since Bratton’s return we have seen a continuation of hostile and prejudicial policing targeting homeless people on the streets and subways. While “stop and frisk” numbers are down, misdemeanor arrests and summonses for the kinds of activities associated with homelessness remain shockingly high.

Recent court monitoring by the Police Reform Organizing Project uncovered multiple cases of homeless people being arrested and ticketed for minor violations like taking up two seats in the subway and being in the park after dark. Jena Rice and Marcus Moore from Picture the Homeless pointed out in the Daily News that the ongoing criminalization of homeless people “defeats the purpose if one part of the administration takes productive steps to address housing, while the NYPD sets homeless New Yorkers back by unnecessarily giving them criminal records and making it harder to maintain employment and self-sufficiency.”

Rather than relying on the police, we need to utilize trained mental health workers. The city has a few crisis intervention teams, staffed with trained clinicians, but they have limited hours and are not well connected to 911, meaning that it is usually the police who are dispatched first. The city also has civilian outreach teams, but they are small in number and lack access to meaningful services. Other cities have developed more robust crisis intervention teams that are the primary response mechanism and outreach teams who can develop individualized case management plans to deal with more chronic situations. In either case, the outcomes are better and the costs are lower.

Of course such an approach requires the presence of meaningful mental health and housing services for people to be referred to. When those services exist, people’s lives are stabilized and the burden on the rest of us as residents or tax-payers is reduced. Recent studies in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Denver, Boston, and other areas show that providing people with supportive housing through “housing first” initiatives is cheaper and more effective than leaving them homeless and cycling through shelters, jails, and emergency rooms. New York has supportive housing, but it is not enough and is losing state funding.

The mayor has pointed out that First Lady Chirlane McCray is engaged in a top-to-bottom review of the city’s mental health services, with a focus on the criminal justice system. This is good news and hopefully will include more services and mechanisms for working with people in crisis that don’t involve the police, courts, and jails. Significant help from the state will probably be necessary to make any major improvements, something for which neither the current nor previous Governor Cuomo has been known for.

There is another problem with the mayor’s response on Wednesday, which is that his calls for supportive and affordable housing seem thin. While the mayor has proposed 200,000 new and saved affordable units, to be obtained mostly through inclusionary housing in which zoning limits are increased in return for more “affordable” units being included. The problem is that almost none of them would be affordable to homeless people. According to Jennifer Flynn at VOCAL New York, the plan only has about 1,250 supportive housing units in which people receive permanent housing with a variety of mental health, substance abuse, and employment services. The mayor is hoping the governor will renew the NY-NY program, which might add another 30,000 units over several years, but this still falls far short of the growing demand.

In response, a large coalition of community-based groups, service providers, and yes, construction unions is calling for a major increase in capital spending to build 15,000 units of supportive housing for currently homeless New Yorkers. To press the cause, they held a sleep-in overnight Thursday at the long undeveloped Seward Park site in the Lower East Side.

Mayor de Blasio learned from the ‘90s that disorder matters. Unfortunately, the lesson he took away was that aggressive policing is a necessary part of managing mass homelessness and that affordable housing is something primarily for the middle class and working poor. With the growing numbers of homeless people and the inadequacies of our mental health infrastructure this approach may have run its course. We can’t criminalize our way out of homelessness and we can’t solve it with middle class housing schemes. The city must invest new capital dollars in substantial new housing that directly targets the poorest and most vulnerable - and at times disorderly - New Yorkers. That is a solution that will benefit both them and the rest of us.

Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale

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Good and Bad News on Second Avenue Subway


Second Avenue Subway projection (image via the MTA)

Two of the perks of being college professors are that we don't usually have to ride the subway during rush hour and we get to tell the truth about politicians. For those of you who do have to deal with the morning crush, we have both good and bad news about the mythical Second Avenue Subway.

The first section of the line, a 1.5 mile segment from 96 Street to 63 Street should open by 2017 after nearly a century of false starts. This new Upper East Side line is expected to carry about 200,000 riders per day, a higher ridership than Los Angeles's 17 mile subway system. It will connect with the Q train so that you will be able to travel from 96 Street down Second Avenue, west across 63 Street and then down Broadway without having to transfer. You will never have to actually ride under Second Avenue to appreciate its benefits though, because this segment will reduce congestion on the Lexington Avenue Line's overcrowded 4, 5, and 6 trains by more than 10 percent.

The Lexington Avenue Line is the only subway on Manhattan's east side and it already carries more passengers than the combined ridership of San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston's entire transit systems. During peak periods, passengers so crowd the subway cars and platforms that they are slowing down trains at stations, reducing the number of trains that the MTA can operate, and making the crowded conditions even worse. Once the first section of the Second Avenue Subway is completed, the Lexington Avenue Line trains will not only be less crowded, but also more reliable and faster. All good news.

When it is complete, the Second Avenue subway will be 8.5 miles long extending from East Harlem down to Lower Manhattan. The next section is supposed to include three new stations. Two of them are under Second Avenue, one at 106 Street and the other at 116 Street. The third station will provide the most benefits: 125 Street at Lexington Avenue where passengers will be able to connect with both the Lexington Avenue line and Metro-North Railroad.

Now, the bad news.

Our esteemed city leaders promised a working Second Avenue line in the 1920s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '90s, and 2000s. It's a shame that so many politicians made these promises because if they had been more realistic, the city might never have torn down the elevated train lines that once ran above Second and Third Avenues from the Bronx to the Lower Manhattan. Likewise, the MTA would not have started construction in the 1970s only to abandon tunnels a few years later.

How long will it take to complete the subway all the way to Lower Manhattan? Well, unless you're young enough that a parent is still packing you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for school every day - maybe not in your lifetime.

The most recent incarnation of the Second Avenue Subway was born about 15 years ago when the MTA did something smart. Its planners made sure the line would be built in stages so that each stage would have benefits even if the whole line was never completed.

The state and city are now facing a major dilemma about beginning the second stage to 125 Street. The MTA is facing a massive $14 billion hole in its five-year capital program and already has over $34 billion in outstanding debt even before it begins the next phase of the Second Avenue. The MTA cannot afford to continue building the new line without outside financial help.

At the same time, two factors will make the Lexington Avenue line much more crowded. First, the city is continuing to encourage both new residential and commercial growth along the east side. Second, the MTA is completing construction of the East Side Access project that will connect the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal where thousands of riders every day will transfer to the 42 Street station on the Lexington Avenue line.

The governor, who controls the MTA board of directors, will make the final decision about its capital program. So what will Governor Andrew Cuomo do? He has committed himself politically to limiting any increase to taxes, tolls, and fares. He is also talking about another megaproject– an elevated train connection to LaGuardia Airport. Since he has already called the MTA capital program bloated, it is clear he is going to be making cuts.

Cuomo's choices are all unpleasant for riders. The MTA could replace fewer subway cars, fix up fewer subway stations, or buy fewer new buses. It might have to postpone plans to replace tracks, signals, and its other critical and aging infrastructure. The $1.5 billion proposal for just starting the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway will clearly be one of his biggest targets.

Our guess is that he is going to announce that New York is still committed to building stage two, but he is going to take away nearly all the funds allocated for it. That is what his political advisors are probably whispering into his ear right now. Cuomo will never get credit for having the idea to build the Second Avenue Subway line and he will not be in office long enough to take credit for its completion.

The MTA doesn't really need to finish the subway line when it can just do what Tokyo does. The MTA can hire "oshiyas," outfit them in snazzy uniforms and white gloves, and have them push people onto overcrowded rush hour trains. Just think of it as an opportunity to meet, touch, and smell more of your neighbors.

If that doesn't sound like a good way to travel on the East Side in the future - and it sounds awful to us - you might want to consider calling your elected representatives.

by Philip M. Plotch and Nicholas D. Bloom

Plotch is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Masters in Public Administration program at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City. He is the former director of World Trade Center Redevelopment and Special Projects for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the former manager of planning for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is the author of Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject.

Bloom is associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology where he is also Chair of Urban Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies. He has written many books including The Metropolitan Airport: JFK International and Modern New York and the forthcoming edited collection from Princeton University Press, Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

Protecting Our City's Environment

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CM Constantinides, the author (photo: William Alatriste)

There is probably no greater threat to our global civilization than climate change. In order to combat its effects, we must implement sustainable, environmentally responsible policies.

Our city has already made many important strides in becoming greener and more sustainable, including several over the past year and a half. There is still much work to do in the days and years ahead, and the City Council is committed to taking on the challenges we face. I am honored to have been recently appointed as Chair of the Council's Environmental Protection Committee, where I plan to continue making the city more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable.

Last year, the City Council unanimously passed my legislation to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, becoming the largest city to codify this goal into law. The legislation, now Local Law 66, was an integral part of the Council's policy platform to strengthen this city's commitment to a more sustainable and environmentally responsible future. By reducing our carbon emissions, we are taking the necessary and bold steps to improve our resiliency, encourage public and private sector innovation, improve our air quality, and impact public health.

To help us attain this bold sustainability goal, I have introduced additional legislation to encourage more use of solar, geothermal energy, and biofuels. These bills include INT. 609, which would create a regulatory framework for installing geothermal heat exchange systems; INT. 642, which would reduce emissions by 211,500 metric tons of carbon per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars permanently off the road; and others soon to be introduced that will expand our city's wind and solar capacity.

However, we must push even further in reducing our carbon emissions and combating climate change.

To me, environmental protection means enacting policies that not only make us sustainable, but ensure environmental justice so that all communities will be respected and protected from the threats of climate change. Three-quarters of our city's carbon emissions come from buildings; additional emissions come from solid waste, transportation, and power generation. City government alone produces 3.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent would require a reduction of 43 million metric tons per year.

To reach this goal, we will implement policies that raise awareness of climate change and lower reliance on fossil fuels. We will partner with the Department of Environmental Protection and Mayor's Office of Sustainability to implement Mayor de Blasio's OneNYC plan, which aims to make New York more environmentally responsible, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to do much important and necessary work equitably.

Our city faces unprecedented challenges that require bold, innovative solutions. New York leads the way on housing, public health, and transportation policies, so we must continue to lead the way on long-term sustainability and resiliency. The stakes are high for our city and our planet, and continued bold policy relating to our environment will lead us to a stronger, sustainable NYC.

Council Member Costa Constantinides represents the New York City Council's 22nd District, which includes his native Astoria along with parts of Woodside, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. He serves as the chair the City Council's Environmental Protection Committee and sits on six additional standing committees: Civil Service & Labor, Contracts, Cultural Affairs, Oversight & Investigations, Sanitation, and Transportation. For more information, visit

Six Million Reasons Albany Fails

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Riders board the 4 (photo via Crain's)

As another tumultuous Albany session came to a close and our legislators bickered about rent regulations, 421-a, and mayoral control over New York City schools, there was one critical piece of the legislative puzzle conspicuously missing – funding the MTA capital program.

While the constituencies to renew expiring rent regulations (over two million) and extend mayoral control (over 1.1 million public school students) are strong, the key piece holding those two issues together are the nearly six million daily subway riders, many of whom use the system to get to school and home. They will be the people who pay the price for Albany's inaction as they suffer the impacts of train delays, overcrowding and much-needed expansion projects that won't see the light of day, like the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway.

Our subways, buses and commuter rails keep us moving and power the economy. With a physical asset value that tops $1 trillion, the MTA truly is the state's economic development catalyst. How the State could turn its back on a trillion dollar asset that carries nearly nine million riders a day is puzzling, to say the least.

Without a fully funded MTA capital program able to finance needed infrastructure repairs and improvements, several expansion projects to accommodate population growth and surging ridership will be put in jeopardy, including Penn Station access. In addition, contracts for expansion projects under the current MTA capital program may be in limbo. New train cars and station improvements will become a fantasy, not a reality. Every day our trains and buses run, they wear down a little more. If not properly maintained or replaced they break, possibly in a catastrophic way, and cause a ripple effect throughout our economy, sidelining workers, crippling businesses, hobbling neighborhoods, and shaking the very prosperity of the region - and the source of the tax revenue that supports the rest of the state.

Albany's culture of neglecting the MTA has never been more apparent as legislative leaders left town without acknowledging the existence of our region's economic lifeline - a travesty for the city, the metropolitan region, and the state. The message that Albany is sending is clear: go look for jobs and live elsewhere. So for that, we give Albany "a failing grade."

by Denise Richardson, Executive Director of the General Contractors Association of New York

Don't Be Fooled, Woodhaven BRT Spells Progress for Queens


Projected Queens roadways (image via NYC DOT)

Last week, an op-ed appeared on these pages in which the author, Allan Rosen, slammed the proposal for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevard. Woodhaven is broken for all road users right now, and we cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand and do nothing to make it safer and more efficient for everyone.

As a member of Queens Community Board 5 and a Glendale resident, I was disappointed by Mr. Rosen's op-ed where conjecture was passed off as truth, and scaremongering was embraced in a concerted effort to stymie much needed transit improvements.

Mr. Rosen's op-ed trots out the same arguments made by the Queens Public Transit Committee, members of which advocate for the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Rail Line. For a group that has public transit in its name, members are consistently opposed to any transit plans that mean better bus service. Rail and bus along Woodhaven are not mutually exclusive. But in the time it takes to secure the funding needed to merely start an environmental study on the rail line, BRT could be rolling up and down Woodhaven Boulevard.

Mr. Rosen, a former director of Bus Planning for MTA New York City Transit, falsely claims BRT will make Woodhaven Boulevard more congested. The BRT plan will normalize traffic patterns on Woodhaven and reduce conflicts between vehicles. A smoother flow of traffic will increase the capacity of the road.

Mr. Rosen claims safety problems along Woodhaven are "exaggerated." The numbers don't lie. According to a Tri-State Transportation Campaign study, Woodhaven Boulevard is the most dangerous street in Queens. The Boulevard is the second most dangerous road in the city. Between 2010 and 2012, eight people were killed by crashes. Mr. Rosen's claims are not supported by clear-eyed data.

I have young and elderly family members who cross Woodhaven on a daily basis. Safety for the most vulnerable road users should be more important than the perceived convenience of single occupancy vehicles. We should have a robust discussion about the best transit options for Central Queens, but for someone who doesn't live in the borough to downplay the threat posed by Woodhaven Boulevard is questionable, to say the least.

Mr. Rosen claims improvements to transit on Woodhaven Boulevard could divert Federal funding from the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway. The Federal government has supported the Second Avenue project and SBS along First and Second Avenues simultaneously. The notion bus and rail projects are exclusive is not supported by evidence. If we don't get the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway, the cause will be the massive gap in the MTA capital budget, not a DOT project in Queens.

Moreover, given the desperate need for better transportation infrastructure in Queens, it is especially inappropriate to live elsewhere and argue that Queens ought not advocate for resources in deference to Manhattan.

I have been to many DOT public workshops, and have been struck by planners' interest in hearing from people who use Woodhaven every day. I've seen changes made to the plan in response to concerns from residents, and been impressed with the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of the process.

Select Bus Service has proven to be a success in corridors across the city. DOT's plan to implement BRT service on Woodhaven will make the corridor more livable for all users - as long as the shortsighted naysayers don't get their way and condemn tens of thousands of bus riders to the harm of ever more unreliable service.

Toby Sheppard Bloch is a Glendale Resident and member of Queens Community Board 5.

New York Should Act to Protect Our Constitutional Rights

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New NYPD officers take their oath (photo; @NYPDnews)

Watching cases of police brutality over the past year, I've recalled my own interactions with the police and those of young people like Keeshan Harley. At the age of 20, Keeshan, a Bushwick resident, has already been targeted and profiled many dozens of times by the NYPD through stop-and-frisk and other discriminatory tactics of broken windows policing. Keeshan once told me that the worst part of being subject to these police practices was "being put on display in front of my entire community. When the elders watch from their windowsills with no context of why I am being stopped, I can't help but think that I am being judged in their eyes as well."

Though Keeshan often feels frustrated by the continuous abuses he endures – as he should – I myself can't help to think about how lucky he is to survive those injustices. Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Jessie Hernandez, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and many others weren't as lucky.

Police accountability and transparency issues have finally taken center stage nationally—and it's about time. The history of incidents like these is long and painful, and the daily transgressions that those who look like Keeshan face are equally painful. Debates have sprung up across this country around what, or who, is to blame. What is certain is that the systemic lack of timely and meaningful accountability, and a lack of even basic transparency, is at the root of problems with policing.

Late last year, President Obama established the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, consisting of police commissioners, law enforcement experts and community stakeholders, including me. After we heard directly from impacted communities across the nation, the Task Force released a report full of recommendations. Task Force members had the incredible opportunity to acknowledge and urgently confront some serious problems with policing in America.

Ultimately, the next critical step is for state and local elected officials across the nation to demonstrate leadership by actually adopting reforms to substantively tackle issues plaguing our communities.

New York City is in a unique position to demonstrate national leadership in responding to this crisis - there are ongoing robust conversations about many of our recommendations that even preceded the Task Force's report.

In New York, City Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Ritchie Torres have introduced, and many other members have sponsored, a legislative package called the Right to Know Act. It mirrors Task Force recommendations that call for requiring police officers to 1) identify themselves and explain their reason for subjecting a person to law enforcement activity and 2) explain a civilian's Constitutional right to refuse a search when no legal basis exists for it except consent, and securing proof of consent when a person agrees.

These are basic common sense requirements that can begin to help change the fundamental nature of how communities are being treated by police on a daily basis. They will provide transparency and mutual understanding of people's basic rights for encounters where a clear power imbalance exists that too often leads to an unnecessary escalation of tension.

By passing the Right to Know Act, the New York City Council can show other cities and localities how to respond by advancing the transparency and protection of fundamental rights that's so sorely lacking in everyday interactions between civilians - like Keeshan - and police.

The current system is failing to protect our communities. We must fix that, and the first step is passing 'Right to Know' into law this year.

José López is the Organizing Director at Make the Road New York, New York's largest grassroots immigrant organization. Follow their work: @maketheroadny

New York City Can Shine with Solar Power

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Solar panels (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

Cities are economic centers, engines of commerce and trade. Cities are also cultural centers, for everything from fashion and food to art and architecture. Now, thanks to a nationwide solar energy boom, cities are increasingly becoming centers for energy production, and New York City is no exception.

A new Environment New York Research and Policy Center report, Shining Cities: Harnessing the Benefits of Solar Energy in America, found that New York City ranks ninth in the nation for solar power installations. According to researchers who examined solar installations in 70 major American cities nationwide, New York City had enough solar panels online at the end of last year to power more than 6,300 homes.

Solar energy is transforming the way we view energy in America, as people convert their homes and businesses from passive energy consumers to active energy producers. And cities like New York, as centers of population and energy consumption, are taking the logical lead in this energy revolution.

Solar power makes sense for cities. From improving urban air quality and resiliency to power disruption to creating local jobs, solar carries real benefits for cities. And with the price of the average solar PV panel having dropped more than 60 percent since the third quarter of 2010, solar is now accessible to more New York City residents than ever before.

Cities across the country are wielding many different policies as tools to expand solar development. The city of Denver, for instance, has cut cost and time required to acquire solar energy permits. New York City has partnered with its local investor-owned utility to create designated "Solar Empowerment Zones" where solar energy can be most beneficial.

On Monday, Governor Cuomo acknowledged the important role of solar energy in accomplishing his ambitious plan to curb New York's carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. And right now, the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) is considering establishing a program, called Community Net Metering, to allow expanded access to clean energy. Following through on Governor Cuomo's commitment to expand access to renewable energy, the PSC is working to establish an innovative program that would empower low-income families, renters, and millions of other New Yorkers to choose solar. The program would allow energy customers to subscribe to a local renewable energy project and receive a utility bill credit for their portion of the energy produced.

Cities can most effectively promote solar power when city, state, and utility policies come together. That means we need state leaders to continue the policies that allow solar energy to shine.

With the cost of solar going down and concern about global warming going up, solar power is growing rapidly in New York City and across the state. By building on the progress already made, New York City can continue to be a center of solar growth in the state and an example for other cities to follow.

Heather Leibowitz, Esq. is the Director of Environment New York, a statewide environmental advocacy organization. New York City Council Member Donovan Richards represents the 31st Council District, in Queens.

Proposed Select Bus Service in Queens Could Jeopardize Phase 2 of 2nd Avenue Subway

2nd ave subway pic

Construction of the 2nd Avenue Subway (photo: Philip Plotch) 

The proposed Select Bus Service (SBS) on Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevard scheduled for completion in 2018 is not like any other that we have seen in these parts. According to the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), it is "bigger and bolder." It is also much more expensive. While other SBS routes have cost between $10 million and $20 million for installation, the proposed SBS route in Queens would cost a minimum of $231 million and could cost many millions more after all the necessary engineering studies are completed.

Why so expensive? We don't know. Neither the MTA nor DOT has explained why the original projected cost of $20 million suddenly rose tenfold after community meetings and workshops were held when switching from SBS to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The distinctions are numerous, but DOT has muddied the waters by using both terms interchangeably.

DOT currently is short of the funding necessary for project completion. The intention as stated before a City Council hearing last fall is to spend as much federal funding as could be obtained, perhaps beginning the project as BRT and completing it as SBS. That is where the Second Avenue Subway comes in. The two projects are in competition for the same federal funds under the "New Starts" program.

During the 1970s when costs started to escalate, the MTA proposed splitting the Second Avenue project into two phases postponing work that had already been started on the Lower East Side. The powerful (and now recently disgraced) Assembly Member Sheldon Silver protested, resulting in postponement of the entire project for decades. When work was finally resumed, costs had increased so much that the project had to be split into four phases with numerous delays to Phase 1, now scheduled for completion next year. Phase 2 funding would extend the project from 96th to 125th Street and is uncertain with a $15 billion shortfall in the MTA capital program and the governor missing in action.

Therefore, if the SBS route is constructed in Queens as currently envisioned, the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway could be delayed, but that is not all. Most likely this SBS route would mean the nearby parallel abandoned Rockaway Beach Line would never be reactivated as the same powerful groups who seek to turn it into parkland support SBS on Woodhaven. What's more, this obvious alternative was not included in the study of the SBS line, which was a forgone conclusion before the first community meeting was held where it was merely presented as "one alternative."

Numerous questions have been asked by community members, which have not been answered. Not only is the initial cost prohibitive, but each SBS route, of which there are now seven, costs between $2 and $4 million a year more to operate than existing local and limited services.

This is mainly due to the enforcement required to ensure fares are being paid and for maintenance of new offboard equipment these routes require. Yet ridership on these routes mostly continue to decline as does bus ridership on the rest of the bus system with the exception of routes in the Bronx. Paid ridership on the B44 SBS in Brooklyn declined by 4.4 percent during the past year, a metric possibly explained by increased fare evasion.

The problems and disadvantages with these SBS routes are too numerous to fully mention here. However, if you attend any of the DOT presentations you would think that SBS is a panacea with no disadvantages. But rather than first recognizing and attempting to solve these problems, the city is moving full steam ahead to create 13 new SBS routes before the end of Mayor de Blasio's term.

The basic premise is "trust us." Neither traffic nor transit modeling data which supposedly justify the need for these routes has been released while safety problems in the Woodhaven corridor have been greatly exaggerated.

SBS buses operate no more reliably than existing routes and still often bunch two or three buses at a time. Exclusive bus lanes at all times and prohibition of an additional 23 left turning movements and elimination of left turn lanes on Woodhaven and Cross Bay will tie existing traffic into knots, while minimally improving bus service for some and making it more inconvenient for others by the removal of some bus stops.

All SBS routes with the exception of one have had an initial first year assessment. That is because ridership initially increased on those routes, sometimes by as much as ten percent. The MTA is using that statistic to justify new routes and is ignoring the more recent SBS bus ridership decline. Ignoring it so much that they still have not and may never release a first year assessment for the B44 SBS due to the fear of jeopardizing future SBS routes. After all, how would they explain a 4.4 percent reduction in bus ridership, which is more than twice the borough average decline, when SBS is supposed to be the city's panacea for improving mass transit?

Allan Rosen is a former director of Bus Planning for MTA New York City Transit and is now retired and blogs for

A Budget Victory for NYC Military Veterans

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Mayor de Blasio and Council members announce budget deal (photo: William Alatriste)

With almost half of Mayor Bill de Blasio's term in office complete, it has been well-documented that military veterans have seen a number of administration policies as perplexing and frustrating. What's made this all the more disappointing is that the mayor has unique insight into the difficulties veterans and their family members face through the experience of his own father, a World War II veteran who struggled when he came home.

As a result of the administration's decisions and the belief that we weren't being heard, my group (NY MetroVets) banded together with several other veterans groups to push for real progress. After months of testimony at hearings and engaging with local elected officials and the media - while keeping the veterans community informed and engaged - our hard work paid off in the city budget.

Late last week the City Council voted to adopt the New York City Fiscal Year 2016 budget. The spending plan, which starts July 1, contains an increase of almost $2.9 million dollars for veterans services.

This increase will double the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) budget and allow Commissioner Loree Sutton to not only hire additional staff but perhaps even address some veterans issues that are outside the mayor's strategic plan. It also puts money into the city's veterans homelessness-fighting initiative to assist the federal Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on the final push to end veteran homelessness here in New York City.

Lastly, and quite significantly, the Council's veterans initiative was more than doubled with funding for organizations that will provide direct services (legal, health services, job placement, and support programs) for veterans and their family members.

All in all, while some may still be disappointed, this is a victory and there is much to be happy about.

To be clear, more could have been done for veterans. But, take stock at what has just been accomplished after much effort and what felt like a steep uphill climb. As an advocate for 20 years, I can say that the budget increases and commitment from city government have not happened on this scale in a very long time. The wins are especially important now as the country was at war over the last decade-plus. It also shows that with all the groups, non-profits, and others fighting for funding, we were able to have our community's voice heard and some of our needs directly addressed. Progress.

Are there still battles to be fought? Absolutely. This budget is a move in the right direction, but this increase can be expanded by the administration in future spending plans, with further prioritiaiton of veterans services. With the talk of a new city Department of Veterans Affairs tabled (for now) we will need to work with the city to see how we can get budgetary funding to our local veteran organizations - which are doing the work on the ground and in the community - faster than what the current process allows. Veterans and our allies will also need to watch what Commissioner Sutton does with her newly increased budget and we look forward to seeing where veterans fit into First Lady Chirlane McCray's mental health roadmap initiative.

With veterans still returning home from overseas, with those already here, and with many coming to New York City for economic opportunity, we look to the administration, through its policies and its agencies, to do even more to help veterans.

But today I thank Mayor de Blasio, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Members Eric Ulrich and Paul Vallone, and the rest of the Council's veterans committee for their work and acknowledgment of the challenges veterans face and attention we deserve. I encourage my fellow veterans to enjoy the moment, focus on tracking smart, helpful spending by our government, ready to access new and improved services, and prepare to begin the work all over again toward Fiscal Year 2017.

Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veterans advocate in New York City for two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.

The Assembly Must Act to Prevent Wrongful Conviction

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The author, Yusef Salaam, middle, & other members of the Central Park 5 (photo: @venusinorbit)

We were interrogated for over 30 hours. We were accused, threatened, lied to, unable to eat or drink. All of this culminated in severe physical and emotional exhaustion and eventually prompted some of us - teenagers at the time - to provide false confessions to the infamous attack of the Central Park jogger.

Almost none of this interrogation process was video-recorded. Instead, the jury saw video-snippets of what appeared to be damning confessions; not the hours of coercion or the details of the crime that police were feeding us and demanding that we include in the well-rehearsed video "confessions." Although I did not provide a signed or video-taped confession, the police and prosecution claimed that I had offered an admission implicating myself in the crime. I made no such statement, but because there was not video capturing our interrogations from start to finish, the truth was buried. The jury never saw what led to Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Antron McCray, all teenagers, to falsely confess on tape. And as a result all of us – the Central Park Five – were wrongfully convicted.

The system failed us, but now New York can enact simple and practical changes in police procedure to ensure that false confession does not result in additional wrongful convictions. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie should use his leadership to pass A8157 out of his chamber. This bipartisan bill, which the Senate has already passed, would address two of the root causes of wrongful conviction in New York and nationally: false confession and misidentification. The bill would require police to video-record interrogations from start to finish and would provide law enforcement with the necessary training and resources to implement eyewitness identification practices that have been scientifically proven to protect against misidentification.

If the camera had been rolling throughout our interrogation, there might not have been the false confessions, and there would have been a record of the fact that I did not offer any "admission." But the phenomena of false confession leading to wrongful conviction is not limited to the Central Park Five; false confession played a role in almost half of New York's wrongful convictions that were proven by DNA evidence. In fact, false confessions or misidentification were contributing factors in nearly all of New York's 29 wrongful convictions that eventually resulted in DNA exonerations. And keep in mind that DNA exonerations only represent a small share of wrongful conviction cases. Physical evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing that can prove innocence is only available in a small percentage of cases, yet the contributing factors that led to the DNA exonerations – eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, etc. – are present in many cases.

In addition to protecting the innocent, A8157 would also strengthen public safety. The real perpetrator who raped the Central Park jogger, Matias Reyes, went on to commit three additional rapes and one murder. In New York's 29 DNA exonerations, 11 real perpetrators were identified. Five of those real perpetrators committed 11 additional violent crimes, which included three rapes, six murders and two other violent crimes.

With the legislative session in overtime, I implore Speaker Heastie and the Assembly to pass A8157. Lawmakers have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that no one else in our great state has to endure the horror of wrongful conviction.

Yusef Salaam is a member of the Central Park Five and was wrongfully convicted of rape and assault.

Certificate Programs Offer Opportunity for At-Risk Youth

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Brooklyn Army Terminal (photo: @NYCEDC)

Today, there are many problems facing disadvantaged New Yorkers but one of the most pressing is the large share of youth who are not transitioning well. This is most apparent with black boys who experience a disproportionate share of suspensions and have low high school graduation rates. Indeed, in New York City, only 28 percent of black males complete high school on time. This weak school progress, however, is not limited to black boys and is so pervasive that New York City has initiated a number of alternative high schools attended by youth who are significant credits behind and often older than eighteen years of age. It is reflected in the almost 200,000 youths, 17 to 24 years old, who are neither in school nor in paid employment.   

What can be done? City school chancellor Carmen Farina has instituted policy changes to dramatically reduce the number of school suspensions. As I wrote earlier this year, policies that reduce suspensions will not be very effective if they ignore an important source of anti-social behavior: often chaotic and sometimes abusive home environments. In another initiative, Farina announced that General Electric Corporation will provide funding to support Career and Technical Education (CTE) pilot programs at ten schools. CTE programs link high school coursework to community college occupational programs.

While CTE programs can be effective, certificate programs can be very beneficial for a large share of the most at-risk students. Certificates are recognition of completion of a course of study based on a specific field. They differ from industry-based certifications and licenses which typically involve passing an examination to prove a specific competency or completing an apprenticeship. By contrast, certificate programs take place entirely in the classroom.

A comprehensive report began, “In America, the postsecondary certificate has become a cost-effective tool for increasing postsecondary education attainment and gainful employment.” The survey involved pointed to studies that found certificates of at least one year provided a wage premium identical to Associate’s degrees—almost 40 percent for women and around 20 percent for men.

While the average certificate of less than one year has more limited value, this is not true in all cases. For example, police and protective services certificates are predominantly short-term and earned by men, but exceed the average 27 percent wage premium for male certificate holders. Certificates in business and office management are predominantly short-term and earned by women, but exceed the earnings of the median female certificate holder.

Nationally, public colleges award half of all certificates. However, in large cities where many at-risk students reside, public community colleges award only one-third of certificates; less than five percent in Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The extremes go from New York City, where community colleges award only 1.5 percent of certificates, to Chicago and Detroit, where two-thirds are awarded by the community colleges.

This evidence indicates that the CUNY system is an outlier and is ill-serving adolescents who are most at risk. CUNY’s neglect leaves many with no choice but to seek certificate programs in the for-profit sector. These schools have been demonized for their high failure rates and level of indebtedness many of their students experience. Yet they do have strengths that other institutions lack. The education sociologist James Rosenbaum suggests “that many for-profits have developed good counseling departments that help student not only with their academic goals, but also with their economic and social problems…They put resources into counselors and they’re much better at retaining students than community colleges.” A recent New York City study contends that the best for-profit schools offer real opportunity.

At-risk students too often must navigate the for-profit world after leaving school and many will make uninformed selections of schools and/or programs. Certainly, if the CUNY system would dramatically expand its certificate offerings this problem could be ameliorated. In addition, if high schools form partnerships with best-practice for-profits, at-risk students can be channeled into the best schools and the most appropriate programs. Given how valuable these links would be for the for-profits, high schools could negotiate very favorable conditions, enabling students to avoid high debt burdens while gaining valuable occupational skills.

For many educators, the ideal is academic learning – meaning a four-year college education – for all. Disadvantaged youth, however, may do better in the long run if we prioritize better and more immediate pathways into the labor market. At a time when 36 million American workers who attended college did not complete a degree, certificates are piecemeal, attainable, bite-size educational awards that can add substantially to postsecondary completion.

Robert Cherry is Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.